Archive for June, 2010

Education

How many times have you heard that education system in India sucks? If I only had a dollar for every time I hear that, I would be a rich man. To be fair, what the person is really trying to say is that the College education in India sucks. Evidence for a such a hypothesis is often the number of Colleges that rank at international level and the brain drain that often occurs to foreign, more so U.S. universities. Both those points are valid, because as many people have gone abroad to study. I coerced my parents to give up their life in India, move to U.S, for I didn’t think I could, or would, study in the field that I wanted to have a career in. It is a different matter altogether that I probably didn’t know as a 16 year-old what I really wanted to do.

If I were to go back in time, I would probably not change my decision, but I do feel that the future is not bleak. More importantly, India’s education system is not backwards as it is made out to be. And I don’t say this because I’m enamored by ‘The Argumentative Indian’. To qualitatively and quantatively measure the education system, we need to first define what really is India’s education system.

Too often, I feel, that a country’s education system is defined by the college system. The argument usually proposed is, that college graduates are the ones going into workforce, government, research and academia, so it is an appropriate measure of how good or bad the system is. Qualitatively, we segment these colleges and universities into top tier institutes like IIM-A, IIT, BITS and Roorkee, and then there are tier 2 institutes such as Symbiosis. And there is everything else.

I have two problems with how we classify our system and assess the college’s quality to churn out graduates at a record rate. First, the number of graduates that a university or a college churns out graduates is only a measure of how popular it is. Secondly, what makes a university good? IIT is the premier engineering institute in India because it’s the toughest college to get into. Hell, it might have the most toughest entrance exam in the world; A 14 year old acing the exam, not withstanding.

Engineering and Engineering math is complex and hard, so it is useful to have the sharpest minds coming to your campus. So, the M.O. has become, let’s have the toughest bloody exam, and choose the cremé dé la cremé. Nobody stops and asks where are these students coming? Does it matter if they are being taught well at the primary, secondary and high school level? Is the objective just to have a student who scores in 99th percentile in the entrance exam?

That, however, is about to change; for once, and this is usually a very rare situation, I applaud the government’s decision to re-structure how the IIT exam will be held. What this means is if you’re a XIIth standard student studying in any part of India: You first have to do extremely well in the boards, on top of that you have to do well in an aptitude test that among other things measure your communication skills. Only after you achieve distinction, will you be allowed to sit in the JEE.

Will this limit opportunities for talented students who aren’t quite as good at the aptitude test, but perhaps would have aced the JEE. Sure. But, to have an engineer who can do multi-variable calculus, Fourier transformation etc. is of no use if he or she doesn’t have the aptitude to reason or communicate. The entrance exam score should not measure the quality of a student graduating a college, but by how well does he or she display the aptitude. I haven seen many students, older than or same age as me, focus their energies on doing well in entrance examination, and not giving a rat’s ass about XII. What purpose does having a nationwide board examination serve, if your students are least interested in doing well in it? Discussing merits of XII and Xth boards are not germane to the point of this post.

Hopefully, this is one of many initiatives that the government takes to improve the real education system – a combination of college and school system. India’s school system is massively under-funded and under-staffed with good schools rarely present in rural areas. Even in urban areas, there’s a high price premium to pay if you want your son or daughter to attend a good school. And even if you have the money, the school system focuses on doing well in Xth or XIIth or sending most of their students to AIMS or IIT.

At this point not enough attention is paid to the communication skills, reasoning skills or general knowledge awareness of the students. Should most of the students not be aware of the what’s going on in the world, because his or her teacher is more interested in opening a coaching center. The foundation of a world-class education system exists in India. Ask any student in XI grade to calculate standard deviation of a statistical sample, and the calculator won’t come out. Rather, he will derive the solution, and not only that he’ll actually understand what the measurement really means. I hope the people who are responsible for the education system realize it, and give students more opportunities to develop overall. And maybe as that champion of creativity Sir Ken Robinson proposes, the government could even bring back the creativity in education.

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Religious Idiots

In one of episodes of my favorite TV show, House M.D., Dr. Greg House, the protagonist, utters the memorable line, “Religion is not the opiate of the masses, it’s the placebo.” As a self-confessed non-believer, or atheist, as it’s popular to call one-self nowadays, I thought it was funny, yet quite poignant in many ways. I realize it’s quite arrogant of me to believe that a quote attacking religion is poignant, but then I have also heard that I’m arrogant because I don’t believe in a God, any God for that matter.

I have never had a problem with any person being religious, as a matter of fact, my wife’s very religious. By nature, I believe in the right of a person to practice in any faith he chooses, even though that directly conflicts with my view of life. I always thought that people needed to be religious, to believe in a higher power than themselves, to give them hope in after-life. More so, the concept of mortality has often scarred people. The thought of your loved ones passing away, is not something any one can scoff at. Looking at religion from that vantage point, I viewed religion more as a means to spirituality, a way of achieving balance, where one could accept the inevitable.

I don’t hold that belief about religion anymore, and it has in many ways colored my opinion about people who openly spout religion. Actually, let me rephrase that, I now hold a very negative view of any person who chooses to use his religious belief to make decision for the rest of the population. Living in U.S., it’s very hard to not miss those people. Often, these people are also known in other parts of the world as politicians. In a polarizing country, such as U.S., where elections can be lost or won, because you may believe in the right of a woman to choose, or not judge a person by his or her sexual orientation. Actually, that’s one of my pet peeves: the whole shenanigan about the sanctity of traditional marriage. Marriage, is a sociological phenomenon, a contract that society has, over many generations, enforced onto us to maintain morality in the society. I have nothing against traditional marriage, but people need to get their heads out of their asses, that traditional marriage is not the only thing, and more importantly, it’s not my or anyone’s choice to decide what’s acceptable for a gay or a lesbian couple, period.

Now, moving on to the germane point of my post- politicians, who use religion as a platform to run elections. Last week, Indiana Governor was in news for some innocuous comments he made. The story in detail here. This quote caught me off-guard-

“Let me be clear…the issue of life and traditional marriage are not bargaining chips nor are they political issues,” the former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate said in an e-mail to supporters Friday. “They are moral issues. I didn’t get involved in politics just to lower taxes and deficit spending though I believe in both and have done it as a Governor. But I want to stay true to the basic premises of our civilization.”

Is it me, or did he just contradict himself in that quote. And he agrees with me that issue of traditional marriage and abortion are moral issues, which means they dont’ affect economy, international relations, and other fun stuff that usually deals with politics. Oh, and the basic premise of civilization? What, Mr. Huckabee would that be? That it’s okay for your beliefs to trespass on other person’s beliefs. More importantly, how does union of a gay or lesbian couple affect your married life? Should your belief, in what you call traditional marriage, be the reason for two people obviously in love to not be united together, and not be offered the same rights that you and your wife enjoy.

And for a change, I thought that GOP had something constructive to say. Sadly, I was wrong. Here’s another genius talking about how social issues are more important. Forget BP, shaky economy, war in Afghanisthan and high rates of unemployement, let us bloody prevent gays from getting married. Lets make sure we shove religion down everybody’s throat. I mean really. This is same guy that wants to protect unborn life, yet is okaying gun-rights to people, who clearly don’t have the right to hold a hockey stick, let alone a shotgun. Oh, and all this in the name of religion. Sheesh!

China

I haven’t been on my blog for a week now. I don’t post as frequently as I used to. And its not because I’m a bit disappointed with the lack of traffic on my blog. Mostly, it has been very hard trying to find time between classes and corresponding work, to think about something to write and put words around it. I did want to write about my trip to World Expo, but I’ll wait till I finish the journal for International Management class, before I copy it over to the blog :-).

I could have written about China. However, there’s a saying in China, “If you spend a week in China, you write a book about China. If you spend a month, you write a book. And if you spend a year in China, you say nothing.” So apt to my situation. In many ways similar to the country of my birth: India. There’s so much to write and say about China that I don’t even know where to begin. I spent 4 weeks in Beijing and have been in Shanghai for about 2 weeks, and the contrast is start. Heck, the contrast in Beijing was stark. Below are a couple of pictures taken by a colleague of mine from his hotel room in Beijing.

On a smoggy day-

On a clear day

Yeah, I was flabbergasted too. Latter picture was a rare sight during my time in Beijing. Not only that, the number of English speaking people was a low number. Even at the hotel I was staying, which by the way was built for foreign tourists during the Beijing Olympics. Understandly, the city is more politically inclined with it being the cultural and the political center. I did have a hard time with language, but I got around with the help of a few Mandarin translations from the hotel. The people were generally polite, talkative, even though I had no clue what was being spoken. I suppose animative is better description. I rarely had any taxi drivers say no to my fare.

Shanghai, figuratively, is a world apart. While flying into La Guardia, I’ve flown over Manhattan, and the skyline is pretty impressive. Shanghai skyline was even better. Not for the sheer size, but the incredible architecture. The “bottle-opener” building or Shanghai World Financial center is awesome, when looking over the top of it. Language in Shanghai, I hear, is quite different too. Since, I don’t speak Mandarin, I have no reason to doubt the assertion. The people, however, are less friendly than Beijing. Try standing in the middle of Hongqiao airport, or even in the middle of a sidewalk. People won’t walk by you. They’ll walk through you. I swear, I’ve never been pushed aside so often, and so unapologetically. Its a culture thing. No, Shanghai residents aren’t rude. They are just used to not having people in their way. Walk fast, live fast and play fast. As a tourist, who’s spent most of his life living in urban setting, and living the fast-paced life, I’m slow by Shanghai standards. Oh, and those taxis. Never have I seen so many taxis refuse fares in a popular district like “the bund”.

I didn’t get a culture shock in Beijing; in Shanghai, I’m yet to get used to the culture. Hopefully, by the end of this term, I’ll understand Shanghai better

Bargaining Power and Negotiations

In classic “Negotiations Theory”, the most optimum solution to any bargaining or negotiation situation is to strive for a ‘win-win’ solution, i.e., find a solution that satisfies the needs of all the parties involved. However, how many times in real life have we – and I used the word “we” in a general, holistic sense- have thought about the needs of the other party in a negotiation. It’s basic human nature to want to only care about one’s needs, other be damned.

This is the exact premise that applies in international relations today; and it isn’t exactly a surprise. Each country when negotiating a trade treaty, a military or agreement of any kind with a friendly country, looks to maximize its gains without really thinking about the other country’s need. After all, no politician will be successful, if he goes to his people and says, “It’s okay if we didn’t get all we wanted, the other nation also got some benefits.” What’s really interesting in international negotiations isn’t the actual bargaining power, but the perceived bargaining power.

For instance, everybody and their uncle thinks that China has some influence over North Korea. Often, U.S., South Korea, and Japan are at China’s door asking for it to put pressure on Pyongyang to not perform its usual mischievous tricks. China in turn milks this when discussing trade and Yuan appreciation with U.S. Reality, however, is completely different. China has no more influence on North Korea, than does any other nation. There is some truth to the notion that NK and China share some history as they were or are Communist nations. It’s a different matter that China is trending more towards a Socialist governance rather than a Communist one. North Korea in reality brings no bargaining power to the table, but the perception of it as a renegade and a notorious nation gives it a perceived bargaining power to negotiate at the table.

To me this notion of perceived bargaining power hasn’t been more evident than in the case of India. The Flotilla incident is very fresh in our memories and here is a comparison of different approaches of India and Israel towards terrorist organizations [or in India’s case the reaction it would take]. India’s reaction, or lack of it, is a direct result of it buckling to international pressure. It is common knowledge that most terrorist attacks in India happen from across the border in Pakistan. To be clear, the people of Pakistan are not to be blamed for the attacks, as much as the Pakistan military is. The Pakistan military has always had the policy, after ’71 war, to not directly engage India in a war, but in a guerilla-warfare type proxy war, and provide resources to home-grown terrorist to bleed India via a thousand ‘paper-cuts’.

During Kargil war, there was ample justification for India to wage a war against Pakistan. At the very least, there could have been surgical strikes against the terrorist organization hiding across the border. Despite the national sentiment, India buckled or caved under international pressure. Argument proposed then and now is, that India needs to focus on its internal problem if it ever harbors any ambition of being considered a world superpower. In reality, India’s internal problems can’t be solved with a complete focus of its resources to it’s domestic issue, which can’t happen with all the external distractions that India often faces from its friendly neighbors.

Prior to 9/11, U.S. didn’t care much about India-Pakistan conflict, because there was no genuine terrorist threat from Al-Qaeda. Now, with cat among the pigeons, U.S. can’t afford to have India-Pakistan to go to war against each other. Pakistan, clearly can’t control the Taliban in NWFP, yet it parades the line to U.S., ” You need our help against Taliban and Al-Qaeda.” In return, Pakistan gets billions of dollars of bailout. This is happening while U.S. is sinking knee deep in debt. What’s India’s role in this, well nothing. What has India to offer to the whole Taliban solution. Apparently, nothing. Or so Pakistan would have you believe.

The money and weapons that U.S. provides to Pakistan, aren’t exactly being used against Taliban. Pakistan made the deal with the devil years ago, and now is paying the price. Deteriorating economy and infrastructure, along with frequent civilian casualties are one sign of it. So when I read stories like these, I can’t help but scoff. Frankly, U.S. can’t even guarantee that those weapons will be used against its troops, that’s how much in shambles the Pakistan Army is in.

The blame lies squarely on India, for not developing any perceived bargaining power. As the world’s 7th largest country, and a rapidly developing economy, India has no bargaining power today at the world stage. Perhaps, being overtly aggressive like Israel wouldn’t have achieved the aim, but the current policy hasn’t done anything, either. Repeating the same thing over and over again, and excepting different result each time, is stupidity, and that pretty much characterizes India’s foreign policy. And this is only with respect to Pakistan, forget the actual threat – China.

Whodunit? (Part 2)

Shekhar prodded Hasmukh for his thoughts, as they both descended to the living room.

“I have a few ideas, but I don’t know who committed the murder, yet. I do find the flower bed and the window very interesting.”

Exasperated, Shekhar asked, “What the bloody hell is so interesting about the window? There was glass on the flowerbed, from the broken window above. A clear sign that somebody came in from outside.”

Hasmukh smiled, “Exactly, there was glass on the flower bed.”

Shekhar knew Hasmukh was upto his old tricks. Hasmukh gently chided Shekhar, “Shekhar, you’re a fine officer; yet, sometimes you do miss the details that I think are too obvious.”

Sam walked into the room as Hasmukh finished his thought. Her eyes were red from tears. Shekhar instinctively felt bad for her, she was obviously upset with the loss of her aunt.

Hasmukh pointed to the seat across both from him and Shekhar, “Sam, please sit down. Commissioner and I have some questions for you. I’m assisting the police in solving the murder of your aunt. She was your aunt, right?”

Sam nodded, while sniffling, “Yes, but not a close relative. My mother was a long distance cousin of aunt Usha. I started visiting Udhgam after my mother’s death a few months ago.”

Hasmukh asked Sam about her movements from last night. Sam dutifully recited that after dinner, she went upstairs to read a book and went to bed shortly after 11pm. She didn’t hear anything. Of course, it was hard to with all the guest rooms on the other end of the floor, or on the first floor, away from Usha’s room.

With nothing more to ask, Shekhar asked Sam to leave and asked her to send Neha in. One by one, all the guests came and interviewed. Same questions were asked, there was the obvious grief on part of Amit, Ashit and Avanish on losing their mother. They clearly had been shaken.

*———————————————————–*

Hasmukh and Shekhar compared notes. Everbody had gone back to their room after dinner, nobody heard or saw any stranger enter the house. Amit heard a noise outside his room, and saw Sam walking towards the stairs (Sam hadn’t mentioned that). Neha saw John around 12 moving about the landing, but knew that was part of his routine. Amar refuted Amit’s story that Sam was moving about, he claimed that being next to Sam’s room, he would have heard her first. Ashit and Avanish provided no information. That was the gist of the interviews with the guest of the house.

Shekhar was frustrated, “Well, the least these guys could have done and come up with a consistent story. Sam and Amar say that Sam wasn’t out, yet Amit swears that Sam was out and about the house. Somebody is lying.”

Hasmukh walked around the room and was absent mindedly looking over the pictures on the mantelpiece. A picture caught his attention. He looked at it in stunned silence. An idea just occurred to him; it couldn’t be true, could it. It’s the only theory that fits the facts so far. There was a smile, a reaction that was out of place, it didn’t belong to the person, rather it shouldn’t have belonged to the person.

John walked into the room just as Shekhar got Hasmukh’s attention.

“John, How long have…had you been with Usha?” asked Shekhar

“Right after Nitin’s sir’s death. I was in between jobs, and one’s of Nitin’s sir’s colleague recommended me to madam. She was very grief stricken. What a horrible death for Nitin sir. A new car and the brake failed. Horrible, sir”

Shekhar interjected, “How did you know the brake failed? Police report says that he lost control of his car, and brake’s were just fine.”

John looked surprised, “Oh! That makes more sense. I guess madam wasn’t very sure of what happened.”

A few simple queries later, John was sent out of room. He added no new information to what Shekhar and Hasmukh already knew.

Finally, Hasmukh gave Shekhar a piece of paper, “Shekhar can you find more information about these two people. I suspect they aren’t who we think they are.”

Shekhar looked at the names,”Are you sure? What do you have in mind?”

Hasmukh puffed up his chest and proclaimed, “I know what happened here last night, but I have no proof. And for that I need your help.”

[This is the end of the story. A little underwhelming, perhaps. But I never intended to reveal the murderer or the MO, rather just the clues through which I came about the solution. Solution maybe forthcoming, if enough people are interested, or even if there are enough people to begin with. Guesses are more than welcome in the comment box.]