Dear Chennai

Growing up in Coimbatore, I thought little about Chennai, my closest metropolis. The city felt huge, chaotic and perennially hot and humid. I spent many a summer in Chennai under the air conditioner and longing for the milder weather in Coimbatore. I did not have a real connection with the city inspite of having family and friends by the dozen spread across the sprawling and rapidly growing city. All that has changed in the past couple of weeks where the city has seen the worst rains in over a hundred years that has left over 260 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless and from whose waters rose a million superheroes.
Chennai: An aerial photo of flood relief operation by Indian Coast Guard at flood affected areas of Kanchipuram District on the outskirt of Chennai on Tuesday. PTI Photo(PTI11_17_2015_000055B)
Chennai: An aerial photo of flood relief operation by Indian Coast Guard at flood affected areas of Kanchipuram District on the outskirt of Chennai on Tuesday. PTI Photo(PTI11_17_2015_000055B)
Where do I start?
As I see the dark images and videos of an entire city under the siege of water, I also see and listen to the stories of heroic men and women working in the dark, literally and figuratively and saving lives. We talk of saving lives all our life but when the rubber meets the road, we lose the plot. Here in the drowning city, heroes have been born every single minute. In the first world, we whine and cry about losing a few hours of sleep. Here in this water ravaged city with no power for days and water and sewage every where, people are running/ nay swimming to save people and dogs and cats and parrots.
Every minute on social media, I see and read of men and women and children doing things we are used to seeing the Avengers and Justice League do, on the big screen. These are second, third and fourth hand accounts. If these accounts and videos are even partially true, I can only imagine what went down. For all the heroes on the ground, saying hats off is belittling your effort. Words fail the wordsmith.

Yesterday, a new trailer for the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie was released (link, if you so care). As I watched it, it struck me- we are witnessing in real time a million of Batmen and Wonder women and Supermen doing everyday super heroism. They lack the capes and the masks, the x-ray vision and the bat mobile- but they do have their Innovas and boats and buses and Twitter and Facebook. And in the past few days, they have soared farther than Superman could ever do, into the hearts of many in Chennai, Cuddalore and across the world.

Chennai, I am a convert. Your new biggest fan. You, the people of this city are rockstars. And so are all the people you have inspired from around the state and country to dive right into the water to help. This is a story to be told for generations to come of how a city rose to a challenge unlike any other and stood tall, drenched, but strong and resilent.

 

So is it over?
Rain is forecasted for the next few days but in the long term, the city needs help in cleaning out the mess and rebuilding their lives. And lest we forget, it is not just Chennai. Cuddalore and other smaller cities around Chennai have also been hard hit. They need help. Health challenges will be plenty and the biggest need for the coming weeks will be clean water, food, medicines and clothing. So don’t stop supporting efforts in Chennai just because the roads are getting back to normal. The affected areas will take months to get back to normal life.

 

How can we help from far?
A lot of organizations are mobilizing funds and resources to pass on to the right people to buy food, warm blankets and mobile phone chargers for people in Chennai. Some of them you can reach out to are listed below. There are many many more and please seek them out. Chennai needs every little bit of help we can give. It is literally the least we can do from far.
General Resources and funding opportunities:
Google Crisis Response:
Facebook:
Twitter:

Post Script:
When nature unleashes her fury, we tend to blame the Gods and then pray for help and mercy. But not all of it is nature. Much of it is us. Just as real as the men and women saving lives are, as I type this and as you read this. Decades of illegal permits issued to builders in low lying areas and rampant construction where there should really nothing, total lack of urban planning, no disaster preparedness plan to speak of, and so much more. We should not lose perspective nor get lost in blaming one political party or the other. This is failure in many levels that needs to be addressed now. We need to ask the right questions and look to solve them ourselves. Politicians fend for themselves. We need to fend for ourselves too. The government is what we make of it. Let us make it something that matters in times like this. This is not party politics and who did what. This is about how we set policy and enforce it.

This is no longer about taking care of the future of our kids. This is for our survival. Of this generation. Forget the future. We need to figure out a way to live for today.

 

{Read, Write, Listen, Express and Do} more

2015 is here. We are a full two weeks into the new year which allows us to commit to things rationally without the hasty decisions we take in the name of New Year resolutions. I have a mixed opinion on resolutions. I think, taken too seriously, they tend to be ineffective. But seen as a fresh start to our personal and professional life, every 365 days, they make much more sense. Especially coming off the year end holidays.

2014 was a great year – I achieved new milestones professionally, made a ton of friends in the community and spent good time with the family. My blogs had over 30,000 views for the year which might be its high water mark ever (more on this later) and I am thankful to all of you for reading all the stuff I write- good and the not so good. Now it is time to commit to goals not just for 2015 but moving forward. Maybe, just maybe, some of you might be interested in a few of the ones I highlight below. See them less as resolutions and more as ongoing experiments in personal improvement.

Read More

This one is fairly obvious. Reading makes us better. I used to be a voracious reader growing up and that slowed down during my early professional years. Over the last 2-3 years, I have been slowly but steadily increasing how much I read. I set fairly conservative goals for each year of 5 works of fiction, 5 works of non-fiction plus magazines, articles, the works. I far surpassed my goal for everything but non-fiction last year and I am out to correct that this year. My Kindle Voyage and local library are my best friends. The reading experience on the Kindle Voyage is remarkable. While the wait for good books in the library is a pain, I have gotten a good portion of fiction reading from my library. I have a whole pile of books I purchased over the past year to get to. For online articles, I favorite the ones I want to read and then use IFTTT to send them to Pocket.  I have Pocket on everything from my phone, Mac and tablets. The image below is the first batch I need to get to**.

Reading List- Q1 2015

Write More

Writing here refers to contributing more online and also to write more with pen and paper. With your support, my blogs have gotten quite popular over the years and while I am still very enthusiastic to continue writing, I would like to explore new vistas and new topics that require more research and introspection. Blog posts will be fewer but hopefully with something more to take with you.

His writing materials

My continuing obsession with fountain pens and good quality paper is the other part of the story. My writing with pen and paper has dramatically increased. This post was composed as a series of bullet points on a 80th anniversary edition of a Rhodia Classic Ice Top Staplebound Notepad with a Hero fountain pen (remember those?) using a Noodlers Ink Heart of Darkness***.This obsession will get its own post soon.

HearListen More

In my notes, I titled this section as “Hear More” but upon further thought, modified it to Listen More. There is the critical difference where I could hear but not really listen and pay attention to what is being said. My penchant for being the talker in the room prevented me for a long time from being a good listener. This is a work in progress.

The other component of “Listen More” is related to podcasts. Podcasts have enjoyed a resurgence in the recent years and thanks to Serial, many more people are jumping in. Podcasts are my daily companion during my commute and a huge source of knowledge. If you are into podcasts, drop me a note. I can recommend a few****. Some off the top of my head worth listening to- The Pen Addict (surprise, surprise), Techpinions (tech analysis), The Critical Path (tech analysis), APM Marketplace (Kai Ryssdal FTW), Accidental Tech Podcast (tech+Apple), The Web Ahead (web dev) and a whole lot more. On my Mac, I use iTunes to listen to podcasts. On iOS devices, I highly recommend Marco Arment’s Overcast app. On Android, I use Podcast Addict.

TalkExpress More

This is part of what is new for 2015. I would like to express myself better. This is through other forms of media beyond plain text online. I am looking to add more videos to my reviews. I started adding hands-on videos to my reviews in 2014. There will be more of this. I attempted adding a read-along version for my book, Mahabharata for Kids. Initial response has been good. I am contemplating more podcast type posts or maybe even an audio version to go with every post. I am open to feedback on this.

Do More

Twenty four hours is never enough. To read and write and listen and express more, 24 hours is definitely not enough. But there is an itch to do more. More local community events, alumni events, side projects for work, personal side projects, an Android and/or iOS app, finishing a full course on one of the MOOCs, and a new book. The list is long. If I can get to half of this list without spending one less minute with my family, it will be a very successful year. Onward march!

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


** On my choice of books:

I enjoyed Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St.Claire’s when I was younger. When I saw them during my last trip to India, I jumped on it. I have not read Haruki Murakami before. This is my first attempt. Kurzweil’s book has been on my list for a long time. Finally picked up a copy recently. Walt Isaacson’s “Innovators” came in for good praise last year as did “Asura” in Indian fiction circles.

*** The first sign of obsession on any object, fountain pen, paper or otherwise is that you start documenting specifics. Type of nib (Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, Broad), brand and specifics about the ink and so on.

**** I listen to a ton of podcasts on a variety of topics. Let me know your interest and I can recommend some good ones.

The Big Cookie

I lived all my early life until college in a cosmopolitan town in South India. I loved drinking tea. A cup of tea in India was 2 maybe 3 oz. tops. A sandwich bread slice was about 3.5 inches. And cakes were small- pretty small.People had 3-4 cups of tea or coffee adding up to 8-12 oz. in a day.

The first major shock I experienced in the US was not the culture shock most people warned me about. I had seen enough of television to not be surprised. It was good to know that MTV was not representative of how people dressed and acted in public in the US. But the real shock was portion size. Everything was huge. The burgers, the coffees, the sandwiches, the soup bowls- everything was supersized. And there were larger sized options on top of that. If a single burger didn’t do it for you, have a double. If a large latte (12 oz.) wasn’t enough, you could go for a grande or a venti (all of 20 oz.).

The big cookie
The big cookie

A week or so ago, I had a catered lunch from Panera and my healthy salad came with a cookie. And to call it huge would be an understatement. The cookie was ginormous. I am not really sure what Panera was thinking when they decided to pair their catered soups and sandwiches with these cookies. For the record, this is not the first time they are doing this. This is the first time I am writing about it.

Lets see, what does this cookie contain?

Butter (loads of it), enriched flour, sugar (again, loads of it) and probably milk. I could do with some of that milk and a wee bit butter for protein. Everything else, in glorious excess is totally bad for me. And this is from Panera- one of the healthier choices for most of us.

Then there is the American icon- Starbucks. For reasons only they would know, they supersize their drinks and set the stage for everyone else to follow. Why not start with an 8 oz size or better still 6 oz?. I would rather pay $2 for a 6oz. latte than $3 for a 12oz. one. Starbucks makes more money and I consume less of caffeine and sugar. Win-win right?

When Mayor Bloomberg of New York went on a crusade to rid the town of large sized sugary drinks (16 oz. no less), people everywhere were indignant. How dare the Mayor tell me what I should and should not drink?. Who is he to worry about my health?. Here is my take on that- it is not a Mayor’s job to decide what is in your best interest, it is for you to do that. But if you arent making those conscious choices and it is affecting the society as a whole in being obese, it is indeed his job to do something about it. If we can let politicians tell us when to have babies, who to marry, and more importantly who not to, why should there not be atleast a conscious attempt to limit our bad choices?. No one is really going to get healthier drinking the 20 oz. drink, is he?

Obesity and health issues happen because of poor choices. And there needs to be a concerted effort from the supply side (the manufacturers and restaurants) as well as the demand side (us) to change that. It will take time for people to get used to smaller portions. And it will be a significant transition for a country that loves everything supersized. But it will be an effort well worth undertaking. Not just for the present but for a future of better health for one and all. Until then, we will be a nation careening towards a very unhealthy future.

The food we eat and the habits we keep – Part 1

When was the last time you didn’t hear about something fundamentally wrong with our food- be it a documentary or a book or an article or a shared Facebook post?. When was the last time you were at a party or a big lunch and someone wasn’t talking about their new diet and why it was better than everything else?. The food we know and believe is good for us is changing as is our understanding of it. In the first of a series of posts, I will try to make some sense out of all this and request your help (in the comments section) to share what you think works for you.

Most of the people I know are trying to lose weight. Quite a few people I know is trying to change their eating habits. And just about everyone is talking about it. I’ll admit I am the guilty party sometimes but it is a Bay Area thing if you know what I am talking about. Food and nutrition awareness is incredibly high here. It is impossible to escape from it.

The Indian diet problem

Long long ago, when India was a land of farmers and walking was the primary means of transport, our ancestors landed on a diet filled with starch. The diet worked because these people burned the energy every day. But over the years, we started making a transition to desk jobs. At the bank, the post office, the small business firm, the shop and everywhere else.

We started moving less yet continued to hold on to the same diet. We convinced ourselves that since we were primarily vegetarians, we ate nothing bad. We celebrated every festival with sweets and savories of a dozen kind. We ate it all and more from those shared by friends and family. We consumed and consumed while not adapting our lifestyles to it. And what do we have to show for it – elevated risk of heart problems at a rate much higher than most other ethnic groups in the world. And it is only getting worse. Information Technology jobs make us sit at our desks much longer while state of the art gymnasiums and gear collect the dust. Call Centers ensure that we eat carb heavy food at the stroke of midnight ensuring that our body metabolic system is completely and utterly screwed up.

Thali

The Indian diet in America

If there is anything worse than our diets back in India, it is that in America. Here, we walk even less than we used to and the comforts of our life ensure that we dont take that extra effort to adjust our lifestyles. The rich food coupled with car based transportation in a suburban milieu ensures that our problems get worse in the United States. Most of us do nothing about it until a warning comes along- a routine blood work that shows higher cholesterol or triglycerides, sudden weight gain or worse still, a heart attack. And then we sit down to think and realize how far we have gotten from where we should be. As I am doing now. A few years ago, I was identified with borderline high cholesterol and I have been trying to fix it ever since. I havent succeeded much but I havent gotten any worse. And I am still trying to figure things out.

Changing the habits

Part of figuring out how to get healthier is to understand the habits that caused them in the first place. After talking extensively with friends and family and doctors and patients, and reading as much as I could, here are the simple habit changes I have learnt that can make the most difference.

1. Stay active. Every extra step you take is one towards better health. I started using a fitness tracker last Fall and it has made a huge difference. I use a FitBit One. I wrote about it here. It is the best $99 I have spent in a long time. Walk, run, jog- whatever works for you. Just dont sit for long hours at a stretch.

2. Drink a lot of water. If nothing else, it makes you feel less hungry. I drink gobs of green tea. Even if everything about green tea’s health benefits is a lie, I eat lesser and drink much more water. And that alone is worth the effort.

3. Sleep well. This is a big problem for a person like me. Here I am typing a post at 11 pm at night when I should be sleeping. I have the luxury of being able to wake up at 7:30 ensuring atleast 7 hours of sleep if not better. If you are not getting 7 hours of sleep, you should figure out a way to make it happen. It is worth it.

4. Get some fresh air and some sun. Most of us wake up, get ready, sit in a car and head to work. We work hard, get out and head home and stay put for the rest of the evening barring an occasional shopping trip. We dont get enough fresh air and definitely not enough sun. Most Indian folks suffer from Vit.D deficiency in the US which would rarely happen in India. So think about taking a walk after lunch every day. Even if for 15 minutes. The fresh air and sun will do wonders for you. It also helps me collect my thoughts for the rest of the day.

In the next part, I will talk about some of the eating habit changes that I have been advised and am experimenting with. While the habits part is easy for me to write about, the eating part is a little challenging since I am still trying to figure it out with the help of my wife. That said, I will share what I know and you can give me inputs on your experiences and what you know. I am off to get my 7 hours of sleep now. Goodnight.

The Bay Area Indian Parent – Part 2

When I wrote the first post on this topic, I received some interesting feedback. Some found it amusing. Others found it true. Some found it insulting. Obviously, I need to do a better message of keeping it amusing and true and not tread on the insulting part. So here goes.

Bay Area Parent
Bay Area Parent

Continuing from right where I left off in my previous post on the topic,

  • Unshackled from constant parental advice, the kid’s parents are ready to socialize. And the real decisions start. The typical Bay Area parent spends 6 hours working, 6 hours sleeping and 12 hours figuring out if they are doing the right thing for their kid.
  • When its time to pick a daycare, the big M question has to be answered. Should my child go to a Montessori or a regular daycare?. After hours of googling about the Montessori method and visiting every Montessori in South Bay, the decision is made. Remember we all believe our kids are preordained by Perumal to be Sergey Brin, Larry Page or Jeff Bezos.
  • At daycare, the mother furtively glances at the doodle from the other “Asian” kid to make sure her kids is better. Never mind the child is 2 years old and is literally scratching with a crayon.
  • Is my kid eating all his/her lunch. Should I pack some rice instead of the soup and salad at school?. Is my kid eating meat from the next plate? Shiva, Shiva.
  • Is the daycare teacher qualified to teach my 2 year old how to doodle?. Is the teacher for the 3 year class ready to teach my kid how to read and write? In the evening, the 3 year old is asked what he/she learnt in school. Did they teach you the phonics yet?. At the weekend party, her friend’s 3-year old kid can write her own name. Why can’t mine do it?. That night, sleep is an elusive commodity.
  • The third birthday arrives. After the festivities at Pump it Up, it is time for business. Should we move the child to Stafford or Challenger where they get real education?. Or will it be the daycare until 5?
  • If a house hasn’t already been purchased, house hunt starts at right earnest. Do I go where the flock is- Fremont, Sunnyvale or San Jose?. Should I really go into the desi bastions- why not the “American” neighborhoods of Redwood City or Palo Alto?. Or maybe my kid is meant for great things and we need to get into Cupertino somehow. Of course, the school district is the driver. The school api’s website is promptly bookmarked.
  • Brain Quest books are bought en masse at Costco. Crayons fill the kids room. Toys make way for the easel and the writing board.
  • Education alone isn’t enough these days- or so goes the talk at the kid’s school. So a checklist is made- martial arts, musical instrument, art and soccer. Swimming is assumed as a default requirement.
  • Oops, time for the next kid.
  • Rinse, lather, repeat.
The kids turn out OK. Life turns out OK. Bay Area turns out OK. What if….

 

The Bay Area Indian Parent – Part 1

Bay Area Parent
Bay Area Parent

We moved to the Bay Area from suburban Philly a couple of years ago. Our son was 1.5 yrs old then. After 2 years of living in the Bay Area and interacting on a daily basis with fellow Indian parents, I believe I am ready to write this post.

I looked at myself in the mirror before I started writing. I am the first and foremost example of much of what is to come in this post. If you are a {Bay Area, Indian, parent}, take this for what it is- a tongue-in-cheek look at the lives we lead and what we make of it.

It starts when a mother-to-be announces her pregnancy to the world. The parents-to-be are doled out gobs of advice on everything from then on. It really never stops. Early on, the advice helps. Soon though, you are starting to lose your nerves. Should you sign up for the much wanted daycare in Sunnyvale along side fellow Indians or the one in the Cisco campus?. Do you need the one with a camera in the classroom?. Or should you just go with the parents for a year+nanny for the second year option that is so popular with other desis?. Questions, questions, questions. The child arrives and the questions quadruple. And so does the advice. Here is where we go from that point.

The typical desi leans on the girls parents first and then the boys parents to brave a long flight and hours of boredom to come and clean their kids diapers. Poor parents. They thought their job was done once their kids were packed off to college. Little did they know it was going to haunt them for years to come. They start regretting the subtle and non so subtle advice they copiously doled out on why every couple should have a kid.

The parent of the child is immediately put into a vortex of conflicting advice– the American residing desi-at-heart doctor or the grandmother who knows best. Should she work on her diet or give Woodwards gripe water every day?. Does the vibhuthi on the childs forehead cause a dirt hazard to its eyes or will it keep the evil eye away?

The grandparents share their stories with many other such grandparents everywhere from baby showers to naming ceremonies to first year birthdays. At their grandchild’s first birthday you can see them beaming. Yes, their grandchild is a year old. More importantly, they can finally go home to their mega-serial and chatty servant maid. Not to mention roads swarming with people. To them, the joy of living in a crowded street is far better than the tranquil and serene surroundings of the suburban homes in the US.

Just before the second set of grandparents finish their 6 month trip, there is the inevitable nanny interviews. The Punjabi nanny is asked if she can cook upma and koozh. As the grandmother’s eyes meet those of the nanny, there is a wary acknowledgement of shift of power. Nanny approved, the grandparents cant wait to get out of this country. Seriously.

Along the way, the parents of the kid develop a new found zest for religion and Indian festivals. The Diwali that was otherwise a long drinking session with friends into the night is now a fancy dress affair comparing which kid’s kurta set was more expensive. And the visits to the temple just quadruple. Prayers, long forgotten are revisited and divinity is in vogue for the first time after 12th standard exams.

And we are not done. More next week.

Is it possible to say “no” to sugar?

sugar

I recently came across a scary and thought provoking article on NYTimes on the harmful effects of sugar. The full material of the article is indirectly available on YouTube where Dr.Robert H. Lustig presents his case to a live audience. I recommend everyone to take a look at the article and better still the full presentation. If it stokes you, there is more here, here and here. Having done that, I have a fundamental question for the reader- is it possible for us to eliminate most if not all of our consumption of high fructose corn syrup and processed sugar?.

We love our coffee, tea, soda, chocolates, cookies, sweets and everything else we eat. Remember, there is sugar everywhere. It is not just in sweet things. There is sugar  in everything we eat. Given all this, can we really stop or reduce our sugar consumption dramatically?. There are so many unknown illnesses that we worry about. We know of this one thing, sugar that can cause a lot of problems- yet we hesitate to meaningfully act on the information. Is this right?

Just to be clear, natural sugars are not the problem. So eating fruits is OK. Milk contains natural sugar too. But the benifits of milk are worth the daily sugar intake hit. Its just the added and processed sugar that is a matter of concern. This includes all the aforementioned and then all your white flour concoctions, all the enriched stuff. Think about it. Maybe its time to start making changes in our lifestyle.