Archive for October, 2013

Gold in them ‘thar forts

October 30, 2013 Comments off

One of the bigger news items here of past few weeks:

Sadhu dreams of hidden gold, ASI to excavate fort in UP

UNNAO (UP): A sadhu’s dream of hidden gold treasure at Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh’s fort here has prompted a team of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to survey the area and begin excavation work from October 18.

The sadhu, Shobhan Sarkar, had apparently dreamt that 1,000 tonnes of gold was buried in the remains of the fort situated in Daundaia Kheda village. …

Let’s see, with gold at roughly $43,000 per kilogram, and assuming metric tonnes (why would a sadhu dream in imperial measures?) that is 1000 x 1000 kilograms or 1 million kg, dollar value $43 billion; a tidy sum, to be sure.

But wait, what is a sadhu?  A sadhu is a holy man, usually itinerant; a seer, an advisor.  Many are rightly revered, but many are scam artists and it can be hard to tell the real from the fraudulent.

Getting back to the gold, the specific density of gold is 53 cc (cubic centimeters) per kilogram.  Our sadhu’s dream therefore was about 53 million cc, which seems like a lot.  Sticking with volume, 1,000 cc == 1 liter.  The sadhu therefore dreamed a mass of gold 53,000 liters in volume – or, a rectangular block about 10 meters long by 5 meters high by 1 meter wide: that’s a big brick.

Alas, this particular dream seems to have been mistaken:

No hidden treasure in Unnao, ASI stops excavation: Report

NEW DELHI: The Archaeological Survey of India has stopped digging for gold treasure at the fort of Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh in Unnao. According to ASI officials, excavations have confirmed that there was no gold at the fort, Times Now reported.

Some pottery pieces from Buddhist era have been found from the site.

Thus far, no word from the sadhu on what went wrong.  Apparently one of the sadhu’s supporters, Azam Khan, the Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Ministers, believes that “ … had Narendra Modi not ridiculed monk Shobhan Sarkar, the gold would not have vanished.”

I feel the same way about lottery tickets.  Many of mine would have doubtless hit, if only I had not bought them.

Categories: Expat life

Nandu’s Parathas

October 27, 2013 1 comment

Nandu's Parathas

Where Indian food is concerned, the one thing that seems a universal constant here is comfort.  I don’t find a lot of fine dining hereabouts, but all around is food that is filling, satisfying, simple and, well, yummy.  A top example is Nandu’s, where they serve pretty much just parathas, a griddle-fried pancake made from wheat flour  and stuffed with different things.  Just like the swedish meatball, every culture has its own version of the pancake.  India, abundantly blessed in so many ways, has many versions, from dosa to roti to paratha to uppam to madak saan to cheelas and more.

But Nandu’s is pure paratha.  Here’s what you get:

A paratha

This one was stuffed with potato and chopped fresh green chili.  It comes with coriander chutney, some raita, and some pickle – mango, lime or other vegetable in salt, vinegar and more chili.  On the spoon is a dollop of ghee – clarified butter.  It all comes to you hot off the griddle.  You drizzle the ghee all over, tear off bite-size chunks of pancake, dunk in raita or chutney, and then eat.  Then you eat more, and along with thinking how just plain good it is – the butter, the pancake, the filling, all fresh and hot – you’re also cursing every hour you ever wasted eating American fast-food.

The price … wait for it … a big, big Rs. 90, or about $1.50.

I’ve been in India over a year, with less than a year remaining and people are already asking, “What will you miss when you go?”  I have a lot of work to do on that list, but the #1 entry is easy: Nandu’s.

Categories: Expat life, Food, Pictures Tags:

Book Review: The Circle

October 20, 2013 2 comments

the_circleI really wanted David Eggers The Circle to be the dystopian novel of our time.  It isn’t – it is all at once too approachable, too light-handed, too inclusive and, oddly, too believable to be truly menacing.

And that’s a shame, because the subject of The Circle is an insidious one, a true and deadly threat, and worthy of a dystopic classic.

Here’s a spoiler-free summary of the book: In a future fairly near to now, a company named “The Circle” – a combination of Facebook, PayPal, Twitter, Google and others – dominates the worldwide internet.  The core of the company’s success is an authentication service called “TruYou”.  TruYou can be used by any third party application, much like Facebook’s OAuth-based service does today.  However TruYou purports to allow unique, real-world people only – no invented IDs allowed; when you login with TruYou, you can only operate as your actual self.  The great benefit of TruYou is supposed to be the greater transparency (get used to hearing that word if you read this book) and authenticity it promotes.  No longer can trolls, scam-artists, sexual predators and the like hide behind IDs like “rockrDude882”.

Into the world of The Circle enters Mae Holland, the every-person protagonist required by a dystopian story.  Mae is in her mid-20s, in a job at an old-school company she finds unsatisfying.  To the rescue comes Annie, Mae’s college roommate, who in the four years since she’s last seen Mae has had a meteoric rise in the management ranks of The Circle.  Annie gets Mae a job at The Circle, something incredibly hard to do as an outsider.  Annie does want to do a favor for her pal, but mainly she wants allies; even from the first few pages you see The Circle has a cruel corporate culture, though of course officially performance-minded and caring. Mae’s job is in “customer experience”, essentially a customer-service phone rep, as was explained to Mae by her trainer:

"Okay, as you know, for now you are just doing straight-up customer maintenance for the smaller advertisers.  They send a message to Customer Experience, and it gets routed to one of us … When you figure out the answer, you write them back…

“Now, that doesn’t mean you just paste the answer in and send it back.  You should make each response personal, specific.  You’re a person and they’re a person, and you shouldn’t treat them like robots … you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process.

Humanity, however, is the last thing the Circle is about, as Mae finds when the trainer explains the rating system:

“Now let’s say you’ve answered a client’s question … that’s when you send them the survey and they fill it out.  It’s a set of quick questions about your service, their overall experience, and at the end they’re asked to rate it.  The rating pops up here.”

He pointed to the corner of the screen, where there was a large number 99, and below, a grid of other numbers.

Mae’s first day of work is all about her struggles and triumphs with her score.  In the end she achieves a 98.  This news – the highest-ever score by a first-day person – is “zinged” (The Circle’s equivalent of Twitter) to over 10,000 people and leads to 187 follow-up comments.

You may be thinking: So what?  This already happens at countless companies today, and I don’t see the world coming to an end.  Well, 99% of what happens in The Circle is happening today – it just is not happening under the auspices of a single entity.  The Circle aggregates everything and is the one thing that has a total view, which it uses to promote its capitalistic growth and raw power.  Another example: In the course of the story, The Circle launches “transparent democracy”, a 100% public life-log for elected officials.  A fictitious Congresswoman describes the benefits:

“That’s right, Tom.  I’m as concerned as you are about the needs for citizens to know what their elected leaders are doing.  I mean, it is your right, is it not?  Who they are meeting with.  Who they are talking to.  What they’ve been doing on the taxpayer’s dime.  Until now, it’s been an ad hoc system of accountability … But still we wonder, why are they meeting with their former-senator-turned-lobbyist?  And how did that congressman get that $150,000 the FBI found in his fridge?

“So I intend to follow Stewart on his path of illumination. And along the way,I intend to show how democracy can and should be: entirely open, entirely transparent.  Starting today, I will be wearing the same device that Stewart wears.  My every meeting, movement, my every word, will be available to all my constituents and to the world.”

In the story, “transparent democracy” becomes an unstoppable force, driven by the insidious view that, if someone protests, they must be hiding something.  The persistent holdouts all find themselves forced from office, victims of sudden discoveries of past poor judgment, ambiguous financial dealings, or questionable tastes in pornography.

I hope no one doubts the fundamental plausibility of this.  We live in a world where a significant portion of the US population believes Barack Obama was born in Kenya, all based on publically retrievable information.  Given enough money and media control, anyone can be ruined just by “facts” – no need to concoct anything.  In the world of The Circle, The Circle has all information, all media, and everyone’s identity.  That “closing of the circle” is the danger.

Here’s a scenario to ponder.  One of the links in this post is to the Goodreads page for The Circle.  I am a member of Goodreads, having linked my Facebook ID.  Like a lot of people I have rated some books.  Now, imagine if I listed and rated every book I have read.  In there would be works like The Occupy Handbook, The Price of Inequality and The Myth of the Rational Market. Looking at these and other books I have read it would not be hard to infer my political leanings.  Now, let’s say I want to get a job.  Hiring today is done more and more through a small number of online providers, and has a heavy component of online analytics, looking at public internet data about you, like what keg-party pictures you publicly post on Facebook.

Finally, imagine that the online company that does hiring is the same company as Goodreads, as Amazon, as Facebook, and more.  They know everything you read, everything you buy, everything you search for on the web.  What do you think about the hiring process now?

Maybe that scares you, maybe it doesn’t.  This is one of the ironic truths of The Circle.  It correctly captures the reality that people aren’t frightened by this, that while (for example) they maniacally protest that affordable health care for fellow citizens is somehow destroying their liberty, they happily surrender liberty by telling everything about themselves to Facebook, to Walmart, to Twitter, and just about anything online with a nice looking web page, all for the sake of a few “Likes” on a cat picture.

The arc of the story in The Circle is embodied in Mae, who goes from angsty CE newbie to one of the 20-most followed people on the planet.  Like so many of us, Mae never notices what happens, every step on the path seems innocuous.  Things happen to people – which I won’t spoil for anyone – and much of the book’s message is in Mae’s reactions to it all.  The lobster/sea turtle scene made me squirm.

I said The Circle is not the cautionary story of our time.  I think its great weakness as dystopian fiction is it never really personalizes the threat, the danger.  Everything happens on the internet, as it were, and that makes it distant.  Again, that is part of the message: when your experience of destroying an enemy is not shooting him face to face, but through a drone attack you view by remote video, it’s a lot easier to follow through and just kill him.  But there’s a catch-22 here (another dystopian idea for which we should be thankful) that by showing the reality of how this threat works, Eggers weakens the message about the threat.

The most powerful thing in the book is the slogan of the Circle, articulated by Mae as she starts her rise to power:


Because of these three lines, if for no other reason, we have to contrast The Circle with 1984, which made famous three lines of its own:


1984 is still the more powerful work by far.  In a way, the quest of Winston Smith and Julia, the lovers of 1984, is the problem of The Circle: How to be private, how to be alone with one another.  Yet, nothing in The Circle comes close to the visceral, personal experience of Winston in The Ministry of Love, Orwell’s vision of the KGB-like future intelligence/torture agency that enforces political correctness and combats “thoughtcrime”.  Here a fellow prisoner loses all control at the thought of torture in the dreaded “Room 101”:

’Comrade! Officer!’ he cried. ’You don’t have to take me to that place!
Haven’t I told you everything already? What else is it you want to know?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t confess, nothing! Just tell me what it is and I’ll
confess straight off. Write it down and I’ll sign it — anything! Not room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.
The man’s face, already very pale, turned a colour Winston would not have
believed possible. It was definitely, unmistakably, a shade of green.
’Do anything to me!’ he yelled. ’You’ve been starving me for weeks. Finish
it off and let me die. Shoot me. Hang me. Sentence me to twenty-five years. Is
there somebody else you want me to give away? Just say who it is and I’ll tell
you anything you want. I don’t care who it is or what you do to them. I’ve got
a wife and three children. The biggest of them isn’t six years old. You can take
the whole lot of them and cut their throats in front of my eyes, and I’ll stand
by and watch it. But not Room 101!’
’Room 101,’ said the officer.

Orwell was able to pull out the fear that is in all of us and place it in the light where it can be seen for itself: cold, cowering, heartless, and dreadful.  The Circle verges on showing us ourselves but, at the last instant, it steps back and grants us too much absolution.

I did “like” The Circle, though you won’t see me reviewing it on Goodreads <g>. It is a fast read, though the somewhat nerdy sex-scenes might make you wince, especially the one where one of Mae’s lamer liaisons asks for a 1-100 rating so he can post it on his blog.  (SPOILER: As women have done through the ages, Mae gives him a 100.)  But that I think was part of the atmosphere Eggers was trying to capture.  One side-aspect I really liked was the way it captured the faux-inventiveness of Silicon Valley, and the heartless nature of big corporate existence, though I think these are aspects that won’t be apparent to a reader unless they have experienced some of that first hand.  I will say I disliked the character of Annie at the start, only to really feel for her at the end.

My final thoughts?  I think it is part of human nature to care, to share, and to do the right thing.  But only part.  We are often worse in the aggregate than we are on our own. 

Thinking on the title of this book, this came to me, something I haven’t heard in many years:

Like the hymn says, there is a circle that connects us.  As long as we find ways to make that come alive, not with packets and posts, but with flesh and blood, I expect we’ll do alright.  But if we don’t, we could be looking at a future that makes the brutality of Room 101 look like a merciful finality.

Categories: Books, Technology

Heaven and Earth

October 5, 2013 Comments off

These two articles from the India Times caught my eye when I was on a trip a few weeks back:

India’s Mars satellite clears key launch test

BANGALORE: India’s launch preparations for the ambitious Rs 450 crore Mars orbiter mission achieved a major milestone with the successful thermo-vacuum test of the spacecraft with its payloads (scientific instruments).

… ISRO said the primary objectives of the mission are to demonstrate India’s technological capability to send a satellite to orbit around Mars and conduct meaningful experiments such as looking for signs of life, take pictures of the red planet and study Martian environment.

… After leaving earth orbit in November, the spacecraft will cruise in deep space for 10 months using its own propulsion system and will reach Mars (Martian transfer trajectory) in September 2014.

The vehicle that will convey the satellite on its journey is the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV):

Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle

PSLV was developed by India in the 80s and had its first launch in 1993.  Providing a national means to launch communications satellites is of course economically very important.  Just as significant is the national pride that stems from PSLV.

So, Mars!  How cool is that?  The US has of course sent many famous missions to Mars, and the ongoing discoveries from Curiosity are amazing.  But we won’t have another mission till 2020.  So for now I say, Go India!

The second article speaks to concerns both earthly and heavenly:

Jaisalmer plans to set up crematoriums by caste

JAISALMER: For the dead in the desert town of Jaisalmer, their caste tag lives on. A government agency for urban affairs in the western Rajasthan district has sanctioned separate and clearly marked cremation grounds for different castes and communities.

The Urban Improvement Trust (UIT) in its board meeting on July 10 adopted the proposal for developing 47 new crematoriums and sanctioned Rs 5 crore for the project. The money will be spent as per the requirement of various castes and sub-castes, from across the hierarchy. Some of the 47 groups allocated cremation sites are nai, darji, bhatia, kumhar, puskaran, grahaman, ranvanarajput, maheshwari, soni and jeenagar. The UIT is under the jurisdiction of the state’s urban development and housing ministry.

This effort is all so families need not cremate their dead in the facility used by another caste, as shown in this picture:

Caste crematoriums

The Indian Constitution makes caste discrimination illegal, but nonetheless caste is ever-present.  For example, assignment as one of India’s Presidential guards is open only to Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs, three traditional military castes.  The authorities explain this is done “purely on functional requirements”, as if only people born in these families have the objective capability of presidential guarding.

Castes are nearly synonymous with surname – just by knowing a name Indian people can often develop a fairly accurate picture of someone’s social standing.  A book I have read and referred to since coming here is The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India.  This multi-volume work – available on Project Gutenberg and for free on Kindle – was written by R. V. Russell and published in 1916.  I have to admit I often take the family names of people I meet here and search for them in this book.  For example, here’s what TCCPI says about some of the castes referred to in the cremation article:  “Kumhars” are potters, while “Nais” are barbers.  The “Ranvanarajput” or “rawana rajput” or “rawna rajput” are a sub-clan of Rajputs – soldiers, as I mentioned above.

Caste and occupation are inextricably related.  As I said, people of the “kumhar” or “kumbhar” (the Marathi version of the word) community were originally potters; if your father was named Kumbhar, he made pots, and you would make pots, end of story.  100 years ago, or even 60 years ago, this was very close to absolute – there was no choice in what your role in the world would be.  But today this is no longer true.  While I’m sure many Kumbhars still make and sell pots, LinkedIn shows me over 870 professionals in the Pune area alone with surname Kumbhar, with job titles ranging from “Central Govt Servant” to “Accounts Executive” to “Senior Maintenance Engineer”.

While the hard and fast link between caste and occupation is largely broken, caste as community remains.  One way you can see this is through the endless marriage websites that exist here, all providing matchmaking services to particular communities, like this one for Kumbhars.  If you are a Kumbhar man, there you can browse the profiles and smiling pictures of lady Consultants, Executives, and Sales Professionals, all Kumbhars.  And while more and more young people in their online profiles indicate “caste no bar” to marriage – i.e., they would marry outside their caste – today only about 10% of people here actually do that.

As an American I shouldn’t criticize.  In USA people rarely marry outside their own socio-economic class, though in the US today inter-racial marriages are at an all-time high.  But the hard part for me to understand is the arbitrariness of caste, to exclude people not because they are richer or poorer or have a different social experience from you, but because 100s of years ago their forebears were potters, while yours were weavers.

When I first read these two articles on the same day, I spent some time pondering the question, how can the nation that sends a spacecraft to Mars also publically acknowledge and promote the idea of caste?  It’s no answer, but I found this observation, in Gods and Rockets: A Tale of Science in India, that offers some illumination:

“We are afraid that the thunder-storms might have an impact on the scheduled launch.” The Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, G. Madhavan Nair, was speaking to reporters in Tirupathi on the morning of May 5, 2005, as the countdown continued for the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a 140-foot rocket loaded with two satellites. Still, he said, he remained optimistic that lift off would occur as planned at 10:19 am.

Nair had reason for confidence. Since 1993 the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, or PSLV, had been a success story of India’s space program. What’s more, earlier that morning Nair and more than a dozen other top space scientists had visited the Tirupati temple of Lord Venkateswara, where they laid a miniature prototype of the PSLV-C6 at the feet of the deity (a form of the sustainer-god Vishnu also known as Lord Balaji) and offered prayers for a successful mission.

Yes, send a vehicle to Mars by all means … but do not neglect to propitiate Lord Balaji before you go.  This is India in a nutshell.

Categories: Expat life