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Know Your Mythology

November 25, 2012 3 comments

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My employer, IBM, is currently running a “Drive Safe” campaign here in India.  Driving and being a pedestrian here are both very dangerous.  India has the highest collision rate in the world; and that is only for reported accidents. In 2009 more people died on the road in India than in any other country.  Improvement is happening, but you do not have to be here long to understand the danger.  Traffic lights are rare and those that do exist are at best only partially heeded by drivers.  There are no crosswalks or other accommodations for pedestrians.  And between four-wheelers, two-wheelers, auto-rickshaws, lorries, bicycles and the occasional bullock cart, all moving at different speeds, it takes a steely eye and extreme fortitude to walk across a busy roadway.

Back to the picture.  The “Drive Safe” program encourages employees to share tips about safe driving on white-boards spread about our campus.  Seeing this one, I wondered how many Westerners would understand it.  It’s safe to say people who know a bit about India know Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles and promotes wisdom and wealth. But what’s all this about a replacement?

That is a story I did not learn till coming here.  Ganesh was originally a normal-headed boy, though with divine powers.  He was created by Parvati, wife of Shiva, god of destruction.  Parvati wanted someone to guard her home while she was bathing, especially since Shiva apparently had a habit of, well, disturbing her.  Parvati, who is reckoned to be the source of all life-energy, created the little boy, called him her son, and set him to guarding the house.

Of course Shiva comes home, tries to barge in, but Ganesha stops him.  Shiva ordered his army to destroy Ganesha, but the boy defeated the whole army.  Shiva – apparently not the most level-headed god in the pantheon – doesn’t stop to think that, hey, maybe this kid is special, but instead in a burst of destructive fury severs Ganesha’s head.

Finally emerging from her bath, Parvati is not too pleased – in fact she is on the point of withholding life-energy from all creation when Brahma steps in to mediate.  Brahma declares that Ganesha can be brought back to life, but a new head is needed; so Shiva ordered his servants to take the first animal they found facing north, sacrifice it and return with its head.  The animal they found was an elephant, so when they returned Shiva took the elephant head, placed it on Ganesha’s body and infused new life into him.

Kids here in India see this story in cartoons, like this one:

The story is engaging as mythology, and has numerous psychological and spiritual interpretations.  In this case it struck me as a small thing that is part of the implicit context for all Indians, the way expressions like “One if by land, two if by sea”, “I only regret I have but one life to give for my country”, and “What’s up, doc?” as part of the context for (most) Americans.

Categories: Expat life

Dry Days

November 24, 2012 1 comment

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I don’t quite learn something new every day that I’m here in India, but sometimes it seems that way.  Today’s learning was dry days.  These are days where sale of alcohol – in shops, bars and restaurants – is forbidden.  Here’s how this enlightenment came to me:

Today I made a shopping trip to Dorabjee’s, which together with Hypermarket is one of my go-to grocery places.  In addition to having a great selection of both Indian and Western foods and ingredients, Dorabjee’s also sells wine and beer at good prices.  As you can see from the dead soldiers above, one of the brands I purchase is Deccan Plateau – Dorabjee’s offers a 2-for-1 deal with a net price of about Rs. 240 a bottle, or $4.45.  The stuff is reasonably drinkable – I’ve had far worse from the 2-for-$12 bin at Kappy’s liquors back home in Boston.

So I’m at Dorabjee’s filling my cart with khakhra, Murthy’s jeera badami, minced mutton, lime pickle and other necessities of expat cuisine when I decide I need to re-stock my stores of subcontinental plonk (a term of affection, BTW).  Alas, the doors to the wine section are closed, an enigmatic – to me – sign proclaiming “dry day”.  On the way home I ask Rupesh ands he explains the general principle – no alcohol can be sold.  But he doesn’t know why today in particular should be a dry day.  Saturdays are fine, I have bought wine many times on Saturday.

A little googling provides the answer.  Today is Prabodhini Ekadashi.  This is a holy day important to the Hindu god Lord Vishnu.  As wikiPedia explains, this day marks the yearly awakening of Vishnu, who has been sleeping the past four months.  This four month period is considered inauspicious and in this time marriage and other domestic ceremonies are considered unlucky or are even forbidden.

This day is an ekadashi, a specific day in the lunar month and something important in vedic astronomy.  Figuring out when these happen is hard – but no harder than figuring the date of Passover, seems to me.

So that’s the story of dry days.  It will have to be next week when my Dionysian urges will be fulfilled – sorry to mix mythologies.

 

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UPDATE: Worry not, my friends!  I have an entire bottle of Glenmorangie, and a small soapstone elephant, to see me through this divinely-mandated dry spell.

Categories: Expat life

Shades of Grey

November 20, 2012 3 comments

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No, this is not a review of a prurient novel.  The other day driving back from work our car was stopped.  We pulled over, where some officers used a measuring box on our car windows.  The purpose?  Apparently, in India there are regulations on the tint of car windows.  The motivation ostensibly is that dark windows enable crime.  From the actual Indian law:

The use of black films upon the vehicles gives immunity to the violators in committing a crime and is used as a tool of criminality, considerably increasing criminal activities. At times, heinous crimes like dacoity, rape, murder and even terrorist acts are committed in or with the aid of vehicles having black films pasted on the side windows and on the screens of the vehicles.

The law goes on the say that the maximum permissible tint is 50%.  The windows of our car are in fact lightly tinted.  I’d say a great many cars in India have this, since the sun can be so bright (and HOT) here.

The measuring box showed 34% – indicating we had tint of 66%.  I found that hard to believe, it certainly did not seem like 2/3rds of outside light was being blocked from entering the car.  Anyway rather than disputing the finding it was easier to pay the fine, Rs. 100, or just under $2.

Now, the US also has regulations on tinted car windows.  I’ve never seen them enforced this way.  In my time here we’ve been stopped at random for inspections and apparently ad hoc tolls.  Always some small amount is required. There is always the question of how much of these monies are directed to the public coffers and how much might be diverted by the officers.  I don’t have an opinion one way or the other, but it doesn’t take long before you pick up that average Indians do not always trust the police or their government officials.

This is a country where two young women were recently arrested for making a Facebook post.  The subject of the post was the recent citywide shutdown of Mumbai for the funeral observances for politician Bal Thackeray, and was to the effect of questioning whether the shutdown was appropriate.  9 members of Bal Thackeray’s party, Shiv Sena, were arrested after vandalizing a clinic run by an uncle of the original Facebook poster, apparently in revenge for what they considered disrespect.

As the India Times reported, the girls were arrested “… under section 505(2) IPC (statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes)…”   Bal Thackeray himself was famous for making extreme statements such as a call for Hindu suicide bombers to counter Muslim terrorists.

A complicated country.  Some things are changing at incredible rates.  Other things, not so much.

Categories: Expat life

Patents: Innovation Help or Hindrance?

November 19, 2012 1 comment

I think most Americans’ attitudes about inventions are unchanged from the 1940 movie, Edison, the Man, starring Spencer Tracy.  I saw that movie many years back and it’s pretty much what you would expect: Edison is portrayed as part visionary, part tinkerer, part business-wizard, part ascetic (for his “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” philosophy), and all dedicated to the betterment of mankind.  Edison’s actual story was more complicated than that, but the core idea in the movie was correct: Inventions help us all.

Inventions helping us all is why we have patents.  Without protection for an idea, the return on making an invention would be lowered, and so we’d get fewer inventions than we otherwise would.  The framers of the US Constitution thought this such an important concern that they dedicated a section to patents and copyrights.

From Edison’s time, what have we come to?  As the New York Times describes, Apple Now Owns the Page Turn; they have been awarded a design patent for a display screen animation of a turning page, like so:

Note that this is a design patent.  This type of patent essentially protects how something looks.  There’s no underlying software advance here, something that makes the page-turning animation better, faster, more page-turny or whatever.  The protection is just for the appearance of turning a page on a display screen.

This just doesn’t make sense to me. Page turning has been an everyday activity since … I was going to say since Gutenberg, but that may be overstating it. Suffice to say people have been turning pages since long before display screens and information technology.  Is now every on-screen representation of the physical world patentable?  For example there are other “book technologies” other than the codex, such as the scroll.  Could I patent an animated rolling scroll?  Of course you are probably “scrolling” this display right now, but how about if I crafted some displayed wooden rollers at top and bottom, and I required your finger or mouse to “turn” the displayed wooden spindle?  Should that be patentable?

I say, No.  Now design patents are kind of a special thing, but their main intent is to preserve distinctive looks that identify products to the public – think of the Coca-Cola bottle shape or Oakley Sunglasses.  Now let’s say the Apple page-turn appeared on Kindle, or on an Android tablet.  Would that effect somehow confuse me I was using an iPad?  Of course not.  Nor would it lead me to an assumption of quality – any consumer knows that a device capable of running Angry Birds is capable of an animated page turn.

Seems like obsessive/defensive patent disorder to me.  Certainly there are patents to things that deserve to be protected – there probably would be no Google without the patent on PageRank, for example.  But as you can see here, patents are being filed at more than 5 times the rate they were in the 1980s.  Are we 5 times smarter, more innovative?  I don’t think so.  Somehow we need to stop wasting all this defensive effort and channel it into actual innovation.

 

BTW, I see the phrase “obsessive/defensive patent disorder” can’t be found on Google.  I hereby declare “obsessive/defensive patent disorder” to be © 2012, Fernando Salazar.  So there.

Categories: Technology

Diwali from Space … Or Not?

November 18, 2012 Comments off

I recently received a mail from a friend referencing this image:

Diwali being the Festival of Lights, in a simple way the caption makes sense.

Except this has nothing to do with Diwali.  As described here, this photo was indeed made by NASA, but it is a composite of satellite images taken over several years.  The purpose is to show the growth of India from 1992 to 2003.  White light in the photo indicates light-sources visible before 1992; blue are lights that became visible in 1992; green lights became visible from 1993 to 1998; and red lights became visible between 1999 and 2003.

Among the things you see in this composite is the development of Madhya Pradesh (still one of the poorer Indian states) in the late 90s, and sparser, recent development in the wilderness areas of Orissa and West Bengal.

The original NASA photos: Nighttime Lights Of India

BTW, here’s where I am:

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Categories: Pictures, Technology Tags:

My Good Friend, Rupesh

November 17, 2012 5 comments

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For a foreigner living in India, few things are more critical to your day-to-day life than your driver.  Not only is it administratively difficult to drive yourself here – you must obtain an international driver’s license, take courses and pass an examination – even if you did get all the needed paperwork, what then?  Streets are far more crowded and driving much more stressful than in the US; it takes practice to drive here.  Then there’s the problem of not knowing where to go.

A driver is a practical necessity.  The best ones not only take you to-and-fro but are almost like guides, with a fund of knowledge about local places from shops to attractions to government offices and more.  Finally you spend a lot of time with your driver – on 1 hour drives to Hinjawadi or 4-hour drives to Mumbai, for example.  I myself appreciate having someone to talk to on these trips, and that depends on both the driver’s facility with English and their temperament as well.

In the photo above on the right is my driver, Rupesh; on the left is Rupesh’ father who’s name – alas – escapes me.  Rupesh came to drive for me through an agency, but soon he will be driving for me exclusively.  Now one of the things we talk about on our drives is food.  I’m afraid I may have given Rupesh the idea that all Americans are ravening carnivores that scour the countryside clean of edible animal life when I recited this list of meats we eat: Beef, Pork, Chicken, Turkey, Lamb, Goat, Bison, Pheasant, Elk, Rabbit, and Deer.  (Game meats are very uncommon here; hunting in India is mostly illegal and farming game is not what you would call an agricultural priority here.)

Anyway, understanding my fondness for meat, and also assuming that – momentary bachelor that I am – I was not getting many home-cooked meals, Rupesh invited me to his parent’s place for a homestyle Indian lunch of mutton (ie, goat) curry, all cooked by his mom and his wife:

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(Please don’t mind their somewhat grim expressions; I believe Indian women aren’t super-happy to have casual photos taken.)

The first thing I must tell folks about this wonderful lunch is – if you don’t know this – there is no place in the world with more heartfelt hospitality than India.  You will be treated like a monarch, the amount of food will be immense, and everything your host has that is the best will be placed before you.  Do not refuse the slightest thing!  Chances are good everything has been brought there specially for you.

We had two types of curry: A boneless one with a rich gravy thickened – I think – with finely ground nuts, and a curry with bones, tiny chops and other pieces in a thinner gravy, with brighter, very cilantro-like flavor and tasty oil.  Served with this is a salad of raw vegetables, tomato, cucumber, onion, beet – a necessity in any traditional Indian meal – steamed rice perfumed with cilantro, and a constant flow of blisteringly-hot fresh cooked chapatis and rotis.

Traditionally, Indians do not eat with utensils, just with fingers – the fingers of the right hand, specifically.  You tear your roti, then use it to scoop up some food.  I think I did Ok for an American – at least my shirt survived un-gravied.  Something we chatted about was the amount of spice.  Everywhere I have been here people ask, “Is spicy food ok, sir?”  I always say yes, make it just like you would for yourself.  No matter what you say what you get is never spicy enough, even at Rupesh’ place, where he sheepishly admitted they wanted to be safe and made it less spicy than normal.  I extracted promises that next time they would make it the same flavor they normally have – we shall see.

Rice comes toward the end of the meal, where you use it to get the flavors of the gravy.  Again, knowing my craving for meat I think the curry they made for me was probably 2-3 times more meat than usual.  But for many households the gravy is the centerpiece of the dish.  Since even Rupesh used a spoon to take his rice and gravy, I dispensed with my amateurish fingers-only method and likewise dug in.

After lunch proper was finished, we retired to the living room for tea and some home-made sweet snacks:

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At the top is mukhwas, a mostly fennel-seed mix that you take in a small portion at end of a meal to aid digestion and freshen breath.  On the right and on the left are two kinds of chiwda, one made with rice and another with corn.  In the center is a plate of shankarpali – small, fried cubes of dough with a slight fruit-rosewater flavor – and some karanji – another fried snack with a filling of coconut sweetened with jaggery.  These, BTW, are all traditional foods for Diwali, which was just starting last weekend.  We only had small tastes of these, the ladies of the house insisted we shouldn’t eat these types of foods so soon after eating meat.  The solution was an IMMENSE amount of these snacks was bundled up for me on the spot to take home, where, I pretty much lived off them for several days.

Not only was the food great, it was a pleasant break to be in a family setting.  Sunday is the main family day in India and like many Indians, on that day Rupesh, his wife and children all gather with brothers, sisters and in-laws at the home of Dādā and Dādī (Grandfather and Grandmother).

This was truly a lunch to remember.  I’m sure when Kim, Alex and Morgan are here we will visit again.  Meanwhile I have to use my driving time with Rupesh to explain some of the facts of American cuisine (“Sir, these ‘turkeys’ you speak of – they are HOW many kilos?’) – and of course to continue learning from my good friend about my adopted home.

Categories: Expat life Tags:

Happy Diwali!

November 13, 2012 1 comment

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Today is the official starting day of Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights.  I say Indian because Diwali, while ostensibly a Hindu festival, nonetheless attracts all faiths to its activities of feasting, family-visiting, gift-giving and – as you see above – fireworks.  These are just some examples I was able to capture snapping pix from my balcony.  As I type and look out my office window I see fireworks near and far almost continuously.  Firecrackers – some incredibly loud – have been echoing all around since dawn this morning.  Fireworks of various types have been going off since Saturday, though tonight seems to be the most so far.

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I found these used examples outside my flat this morning, a rather heavy roman-candle like thing and an empty box of sparklers.  I guess Batman is somehow a cross-cultural symbol of night – on my balcony this evening I certainly saw enough actual bats.

Diwali is also a time to show appreciation to employees.  I have made a modest tip to the security people at my building, and I hope to do the same later this week for my driver.  The local newspapers feature many stories on public employees and the bonuses they do or do not receive for this holiday.

Ah – a barrage of screamers is zinging past my windows now.  Happy Diwali, everyone!

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags: ,